All nations give their citizens rights such as the right to live in security, to marry and to receive an education. These rights, enshrined in law, are so natural that their absence generally never even crosses people’s minds. Yet there are also people unable to enjoy any of these rights, such as our Muslim brothers from Rakhine.
In Myanmar, the former Burma, crimes against humanity have been inflicted on the Rakhine Muslims since 1978. They are maltreated in their own country, violated, banned from worshiping, unable to marry and usually not even given identity documents. The people of Rakhine are therefore being forced to flee their home country. It is estimated that there are some 200,000 Rakhine people today living in Pakistan, 300,000 in Bangladesh, 500,000 in Saudi Arabia, 13,600 in Malaysia and 3,000 in Thailand.
In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they are “trying to survive,” because our Rakhine brothers cannot enjoy much peace or security in the countries they have fled to, either. For example, some of the 111,000 Rakhine people who settled in camps in Thailand were maltreated in 2009, after which these innocent people were forced onto boats and abandoned on the open seas. This savagery only came to light when one of the five boats concerned was found by the Indonesian authorities. [i]
Thailand still maintains that same attitude today. Shocking reports on the subject emerged from Thailand and Malaysia in January. More than 1,000 people from Rakhine on boats from Bangladesh and Myanmar were abandoned on the high seas without adequate food and water by Thai security forces.
This inhumane practice is a crime under international law. Countries of course have a right to prevent refugees from entering their own territorial waters but they must not endanger refugees’ lives in so doing. Yet that condition is easily breached. After floating at sea for weeks, some 400 Rakhine refugees were rescued by the Indian Navy and 392 by the Indonesian authorities. The rest had perished at sea.
The difficult conditions faced by Rakhine Muslims in the countries to which they flee
Those Rakhine Muslims who manage to stay in the countries they flee to still live under very difficult conditions. Most are forced to work illegally, and many are lost to human traffickers. Since they have no official documents they are detained, arrested, exiled or, worst of all, forced back to their country of origin. Yet Article 33 of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention[ii] explicitly prohibits the return of refugees.[iii] Accordingly, no matter what the legal regulations in the host country, refugees must not be returned to a country where they will be persecuted.
Neither can the attitude toward Rakhine people of Islamic countries even be described as “friendly.” They do not want to see their brothers in faith on their territory and refuse to offer them a helping hand. For example, some 3,000 Rakhine families living in prisons around Mecca and Jeddah are being forced to return to their homes. Men are housed separately from women and children in these prisons, meaning that families are broken up. Women are only able to contact their husbands by mobile phone.
The 250,000 or so Rakhine Muslims living in the shanties of Mecca are forced to work as unskilled manual laborers, cleaners or drivers. Some families marry under-age girls off to Saudi men. However, these girls are almost always despised as second-class wives in their new social surroundings.[iv]
Some 300,000 Rakhine people in Bangladesh live in refugee camps where they are deprived of infrastructure and of even the most basic human necessities, such as hygiene, health, education, housing, clean water, food and clothing. Even while putting up with these difficult conditions, the Rakhine people are still being forced to return to their home country by the Bangladeshi authorities.
Bangladesh applies various forms of psychological and physical pressure to send these wretched people back. Those who are unwilling to go back are threatened with imprisonment, their food ration books are confiscated, and they are maltreated or else their huts in the camps are damaged: In short, the despairing plight of Rakhine people leads to their rights being violated.
Here we need to remind ourselves of one very important point; the countries in question may very well find themselves facing various difficulties because of the heavy flow of refugees. However, our Rakhine brothers are seeking shelter in other countries because they have no other hope of salvation. For the countries in which they seek shelter in such a state of despair to send them back means literally to sign their death warrants and those nations being complicit in murder. Instead of persecuting these people for being refugees, they should rather make it possible for them to enter freely, live in comfort and work in security.
It is wrong to describe people from Rakhine as “illegal immigrants”
The people of Rakhine are not illegal immigrants. People have the right, under international law, to flee countries where they are being persecuted and to seek shelter elsewhere. What countries therefore need to do, in terms of humanity and of international law, is open their doors to refugees. Muslim countries in particular need to display much greater sensitivity on the subject. Allah reveals how Muslims should behave toward defenseless people who are oppressed by wrongdoers in the Qur’an:
“What reason could you have for not fighting in the Way of God – for those men, women and children who are oppressed and say, ‘Our Lord, take us out of this city whose inhabitants are wrongdoers! Give us a protector from You! Give us a helper from You!’?” (Surat an-Nisa’, 75)
This verse commands Muslims to immediately offer assistance to oppressed men, women and children. Through this verse, God imposes a responsibility on Muslims to help all oppressed people, irrespective of their race, faith or sect. It is also commanded in the Qur’an that the “very poor and travellers” should be helped:
“Give your relatives their due, and the very poor and travellers but do not squander what you have.” (Surat al-Isra’, 26)
As we have seen, travellers are a group of people requiring priority assistance in the view of the Qur’an. Being a refugee means being a traveller, being on a journey with no home and no food.
On the other hand, the true source of the refugee problem is the longstanding persecution taking place in Myanmar. All humanitarian aid organizations, and particularly the UN, need to say “Enough!” in the face of this humanitarian drama. The world is quite powerful enough to oblige the Myanmar government to protect this handful of oppressed people. What needs to happen is for the insensitivity in people’s hearts to be replaced by conscience and compassion.
[ii] The full name of the convention signed by members of the UN is the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
[iii] “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” (Article 33/1)
Adnan Oktar's piece on Burma Times & News Rescue: